Relative to the whole of human history, smartphones have been around for the mere blink of an eye. And yet in that time, we as parents seem to have accepted that having a smartphone is an essential part of being a teenager. It has rapidly become a cultural norm.
It feels like a lifetime ago now, but only a few years ago I said that I wouldn't let my children own a mobile phone until they were old enough to earn the money to pay for it themselves.
Friends made the point that a phone was necessary for safety reasons (even though I, along with the rest of the human race, managed to get through childhood relatively unscathed without one). They argued that it was important that they could get hold of you if they needed to.
Okay, fair enough I thought. One day I'll get them a basic mobile phone with a limited amount of credit so they can call me in emergencies.
But now the primary reason for children to own a smartphone (because a basic mobile phone just won't cut it these days) seems to have morphed into one about children needing one because otherwise they are going to be cut out of all the 'socialising' that goes on on social media. From the teenagers that I've spoken to, not owning a smartphone is just about the uncoolest thing in the universe.
So even though my children are a few years away from really wanting a phone (they are only 7, 5 and 18 months) I can already see that in a couple of years there will be huge pressure to buy them an expensive item that I fundamentally believe does them no good at all.
What's wrong with a child owning a smartphone?
Every day it seems there is another reason as to why we should be concerned about young people's growing dependence on smartphones. These range from the way in which smartphones encourage and facilitate an obsessive use of social media to the impact that cyberbullying is having on our children's mental health. Research is also starting to emerge about the negative impact that owning a smartphone is having on young people's sleep.
Relationships and family dynamics are also starting to feel the consequences. Teachers and parents are concerned about the impact that excessive use of smartphones is having on young people's social skills and confidence. And what will be the long-term effects of a heavy reliance on smartphones to stimulate and to entertain? What toll is it taking on the creativity and developing minds of our young people?
Owning their own smartphone makes it virtually impossible for parents to really know what sort of material their son or daughter is accessing online. This makes them significantly more vulnerable to being groomed and other harmful forces. Parents can set up safeguards and parental controls to some extent but tech savvy kids are always going to be one step ahead.
Many people argue that we don't yet have hard evidence that smartphone use by children and teenagers is damaging to them and that the jury is still out. But maybe that's because smartphones haven't been around long enough for much evidence to have yet been produced. In the meantime, are we really planning to experiment with the minds of a generation of young people to see how they cope?
Somehow it feels really controversial to even raise this as an issue. But raise it I must because I believe that as parents we are currently putting expensive and incredibly powerful pieces of technology in the hands of young people who don't have the maturity to comprehend the consequences of misuse. Owning a smartphone should be seen as a privilege and has responsibilities. It is not a right and something that a young person should feel entitled to simply because they have started at secondary school.
It's not about being anti-tech
I'm all for embracing new technology. But the argument that children need a smartphone because otherwise they are going to be left behind technologically is ludicrous. Most aspects of using a computer these days are so user friendly that even a 2 year old can do so. Having access to a shared family computer means young people can still use social media and keep up-to-date with genuinely useful skills like learning to code (the nuts and bolts of how computer programs are written).
Many of the technology wizards in silicon valley are known to send their children to low-tech (even no-tech) schools and heavily restrict the use of smartphones and computers at home. Do you think they would do that if they thought it was going to disadvantage them?
What can be done? Parents need to come together
I know that I am not the only one concerned about this. When I talk to parents about this issue the phrase that keeps coming up is 'It terrifies me'. Well why are we buying them smartphones if doing so terrifies us?
For the parents I've spoken to, it's not because they actually want them to have a phone or because they think they need one. It's because if they don't give them one, they will be the only child in their class without one and therefore would feel left out.
So the pressure on parents is enormous. But it is pressure that if parents worked together needn't be there. Because as much as the technology companies try to sell us this technology and our young people pester us to buy it for them, if as parents there was a collective agreement that we wouldn't cave in to the pressure then, guess what, the pressure wouldn't be there.
Children want smartphones because other children have them (and are busy socialising amongst themselves on them). If other children didn't have them (because other parents hadn't bought them for them) we wouldn't find ourselves being bullied into buying them. Only by coming together as parents can we ever hope to turn back the tide.
To join the conversation go to Facebook group Parents against smartphones https://www.facebook.com/groups/1889920927888799/
(Preferably when your kids are not around - I wouldn't want to be hypocritical in encouraging social media usage that interferes with real life interaction!)